Christopher Powney, Artistic Director and CEO, The Royal Ballet School

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Christopher Powney, Artistic Director and CEO, The Royal Ballet School

Christopher began dancing at age 12, which is considered late in the world of ballet, after being persuaded to join a dance class attended by his older sister. Starting with jazz, he soon began with classical ballet. By 14, he was heading into London every week to attend classes at the Royal Academy of Dance, and at 16 he joined the Rambert School, where he learned both classical and contemporary styles equally.

Since then, Christopher has danced professionally in both the classical ballet and contemporary worlds with Northern Ballet, English National Ballet and Rambert Dance Company, working with dancers and choreographers including Christopher Gable, Lynn Seymour, Rudolf Nureyev, Christopher Bruce and Jiří Kylián. Christopher was a joint recipient of the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance with Rambert Dance Company for their season at the London Coliseum.

Christopher’s focus started to turn towards teaching, having qualified with the The Royal Ballet School’s Professional Dancer’s Teacher’s Course. He became Assistant Artistic Director of the Central School of Ballet’s graduate touring company, and in 2000 joined the teaching staff of The Royal Ballet School, where he qualified on The Royal Ballet’s Professional Teacher’s Course with distinction. In 2006, he took up the position of Graduate Teacher at The Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. Then in 2010, he was appointed Artistic Director of the Dutch National Ballet Academy. During this period, he co-founded the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company and founded the Amsterdam International Summer School. Christopher has also taught at the Monaco Dance Forum, been on the board of the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine, and been on the jury of many international competitions including the Prix de Lausanne and Youth America Grand Prix.

In 2014, Christopher returned to The Royal Ballet School as Artistic Director and CEO.

Under his leadership, The Royal Ballet School has aimed to make ballet more accessible to people of diverse backgrounds, while also raising the standards of teaching, through initiatives like Primary Steps on Demand, a digital programme for primary schools, and the Affiliate Training & Assessment Programme for recreational dance teachers. Christopher has also upscaled and transformed the school’s healthcare delivery, making this an integral part of student training.

We talked to Christopher about his life in dance, both on and offstage.

How much persuading did it take to get you to join a dance class at age 12?

Quite a lot! I was very much into sports, but my sister was four years older than me and into dance and competing at dance festivals, so I had to go along and started to make some friends. Boys were under-represented and so they hatched a plot to coax me into jazz first (which I suppose was considered a bit cooler than ballet!). I quickly started to enjoy it and soon took up ballet as well.

How quickly did you realise that dance was something you wanted to pursue more seriously?

I enjoyed being on stage right from my first experience of performing. However, I was bullied a lot at my state school for dancing and there were often moments I wanted to stop, but my parents always asked me to give it a month and see if I still felt the same way – and I never did. I think this was important and made me stronger – I was having a really tough time, but I stuck it out. It made me realise how much I cared about what I was doing and also how powerful it can be to stand alone if you really want to do something. I learned the lesson early, but it’s something I still live my life by, the tough stuff teaches us the biggest lessons and there is always a positive to be found in challenging experiences.

At 14, I started to go to London every Saturday to take classes at the Royal Academy of Dance, travelling from Winchester to Clapham Junction on the train and walking up to Battersea; I felt so grown up. Then between the ages of 14 and 16, I started to try out for vocational schools.

Who has been the major inspiration in your career to date?

There are many. Christopher Gable has been a great inspiration as an artist and performer. He became the Artistic Director of Northern Ballet Theatre after I got my first contract there, I worked with him for three-and-a-half years and I was fortunate that he became a mentor of sorts. I was young, pushing the boundaries and often frustrated with myself, but he believed in me and I learnt a lot from him. I still have many letters he wrote to me as he tried to coach me.

Jackie Barrett, a great teacher and Ballet Mistress at Northern Ballet, English National Ballet, and Rambert Dance Company was a huge influence and support as I got into teaching. She instilled in me really strong ideas about how to approach training students and how we might develop the process of teaching.

What made you decide to move more towards teaching than performing?

Again, it was Christopher Gable. Because I trusted his judgement, I went to him when I was considering what to do after I’d stop performing. I knew I wasn’t a choreographer and had thought about leaving dance for another field, but he talked me into teaching a class. I was terribly nervous, my legs were shaking because I thought I’d be awful at it, but after I’d got through the barre, something clicked – I’d got the bug and I came alive. I’d also done some preparation with Jackie Barrett who often encouraged me to teach an exercise in her classes, so by the time I started teaching full-time I had spent hours under her wing. Jackie continued to support me in my first years as a teacher and I am eternally grateful.

Do you still keep up with your dance exercises to this day?

Occasionally, I give myself a barre, but not often! Ballet is, of course, a great way of exercising and stretching, and because I did it every day for so many years, it’s still part of my system and still feels good on the body. I think you get to know it even better when you become a teacher because you have to break everything down into its parts and you understand better how everything works. However, I don’t do a full class – in my head, I can still do it, but there is no way my body could!

Do you think there’s a tension between classical and contemporary dance?

There might have been decades ago. I think now there’s mutual appreciation and respect. The students at The Royal Ballet School know they need to be versatile and have a solid grounding in both disciplines, and the skills needed for each are very complementary. A dancer may specialise further down the line and both can open up an exciting career path, it just depends on what kind of dancer you want to be. Contemporary continues to evolve just as classical does and there are some extraordinary artists specialising or working across both fields. When I returned to The Royal Ballet School as its Artistic Director it was clear that the students needed a greater focus on contemporary training and carrying those styles through the programme, so we made these necessary changes.    

Is there any way you’d be tempted back onstage?

Not as a dancer and I’d certainly not choose to do regular performances in the evenings. Perhaps I’d consider something in physical theatre. I’d want to be sure I had the time and ability to do it well. However, I think this is now just a very tiny dream, to be able to enjoy the stage again, and not a reality.

I enjoyed my time as a performer, and I loved being on stage, but I do feel I found my true vocation once I moved into teaching and training. This is what I’m supposed to do and I truly love helping these new generations and the industry as a whole.

Do you think everyone should learn to dance? Should it be part of the school curriculum?

I strongly believe everyone should have the opportunity to learn to dance and enjoy dance, for so many reasons. Aside from the simple fact that it’s good fun and brings great joy, it has huge physical benefits in more ways than sports can offer – fitness, coordination, balance, musicality, agility, but also, it’s been proven to affect how we perform mentally as well. Listening to and moving to music connects the body to the brain, improves young people’s mental well-being, helps them focus and bring more energy to their academic studies, and we can even teach other subjects through dance, as we do in our Primary Steps on Demand programme for schools. Learning to dance also teaches young people ‘how’ to learn, how to have self-discipline and apply themselves – these skills are all transferrable to anything they go on to do. The way we educate our young people, generally, focuses far too much on statistics and measures of attainment – what about creativity? If every school day started with some movement to music, I believe you would see significant differences.

What’s the difference between a good and bad dance teacher?

Communication. You need to know your subject, of course, and a lot of people have that knowledge, but communication is the key. To be a great teacher, you need to have the ability to connect with your students, inspire them and communicate with them in a way that they hear what you’re saying – and vice versa. They need to know that you are on their side and working with them. Bring what you’re teaching to life through your own passion. Remember that teaching is about the person you’re teaching, not about you: truly ‘see’ your student and work with them so that the student enjoys the process.

Also, as a teacher as well as a student, it’s essential to have a growth mindset, to constantly self-evaluate and be open and curious as to how you can improve. It’s okay to get things wrong, to make mistakes and a good teacher will promote an environment of honesty. You don’t always get it right, and we’re all learning all the time, things develop and there are always new ideas. I’m never satisfied, I’m always looking for what I could do better next time, and I think that’s essential for a great teacher.

What are the achievements you’re proudest of?

That I have somehow raised my two amazing children. And that I had a versatile dancing career; I enjoyed both classical and contemporary and enjoyed my time on stage.

I was incredibly proud to become a teacher at The Royal Ballet School in 2000, and following that, I’m very proud of the success of Dutch National Ballet Junior Company, which I co-founded during my time in Holland.

Becoming the Director of what I and many consider to be the best ballet school in the world is, of course, a very proud achievement. The fact that, at the school, we can give extraordinary young dancers opportunities and a place where they can thrive, that we can play a small role in their journey and help them to achieve their dreams, that’s the fantastic thing about being a teacher and director, and it feels great. How lucky am I to be able to work in a profession that I am so passionate about.

What would your advice be for someone starting out as a dancer today?

Make sure you have a real passion for it and it’s what you want to do. Enjoy the process. Take it seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously – you have to have a sense of humour. Don’t be put off by hurdles, because there will be plenty and they teach us so much. Your journey won’t be linear so be curious, be willing to adapt, and make sure you reflect on yourself and why you’re doing what you’re doing at each stage.

Do you have unfulfilled ambitions?

With my performing career, I feel very satisfied: I did much more than I ever thought I would because I was a late starter and I tried to stop while I was still doing well.

I don’t have any specific personal ambitions except to continue enjoying life and doing what I love. However, I’m certainly not complacent. I can’t stand sitting still, so generally, I’m always looking to keep progressing, learning, and getting better at what I do. I do want to continue pushing for this ongoing cultural shift in dance and dance training where we’re centring the student, making training a much more positive experience than it might have been historically, and raising standards in teaching both within and beyond the school. I want to continue to try to open dance up to more communities, and make it more equitable, which we are working hard to do with our outreach programmes and auditions. And I want to see The Royal Ballet School thriving as it reaches its centenary in 2026 and moves into its next 100 years.

What are you hoping to achieve as CEO of The Royal Ballet School?

It’s been a challenging decade for the school, as it has for so many: an uncertain economic climate, Brexit, COVID, and now the war in Ukraine. All these circumstances have had significant consequences, and it’s my goal to make sure the school goes into its second century on a stable footing and in a really good place so we can continue to lead the way in classical ballet training. We will maintain our artistic standards and I want us to continue to be the most sought-after classical ballet training school in the world. I want us to continue giving opportunities to the most exceptional young dancers and providing a high-quality, nurturing environment in which they can flourish. We’re always working on improving what we do, bringing in knowledge and expertise so we can develop in areas like healthcare and our student experience, and sharing that knowledge with our sector globally. We will continue to work to widen access to high-quality training for all, whether that’s through our teacher training programmes or our recreational programmes. There is much to do, but we have an incredible team of people ready to take on the challenge.

Photography Catherine Garcia

We’ve included a few further images here, from the time Catherine spent with Christopher, whilst shooting him in Richmond.